I was sprawled in a tired heap on the cold cement floor of a drafty building in the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds.
To my left, a pack of 10 veteran roller derby players circled a well-worn track in a tight cluster.
Godzella, a compact woman in green tights, fought for position while GingerFightis, in black skates with duct-taped toes and a shiny purple skirt, battled her way through by throwing her hips and shoulders into the moving mass. To my right, the newbies were running drills. Mighty Mouse tipped onto the toe stops of her skates and ran several paces on her toes. Veteran coach Malice watched her girls and screamed what were supposed to be encouraging words.
"Speed it up, ladies! The faster you go, the sooner we're done!" she said.
What was I doing? Trying to convince my leg muscles that standing back up in my borrowed quad skates was a good idea.
When I announced my derby dreams to the newsroom, one co-worker immediately bet I would break my wrist in a fall. Another predicted a shoulder slam would leave me in the ER with a damaged collarbone.
I optimistically pictured myself lacing up my skates, strapping on a helmet and elbow pads, and hopping to my feet to jump into the fray and take down some skaters. Then I'd adopt a cool derby name, like Amazon Jane or Hermione Danger. Yeah.
Derby through the years
The hip checking and competitive crashing game goes back 80 years to Chicago.
The term "roller derby" originally referred to marathon roller skate races on raised tracks in the 1920s and '30s. It grew into the team sport by 1935, as the first game in which men and women got the same amount of playing time. Skaters circled a banked track at high speeds, trying to block key players from passing to score points.
Televised contests in the 1960s and '70s added some theatrical jumps, hits and staging to the game. But its popularity ran out in the early '80s.
When the sport was revived in 2002 in Austin, Texas, flat tracks and fewer exaggerations came into vogue. Playing on a flat track was cheaper, because there was no mammoth track to schlep to matches or store in a warehouse between practices.
The leagues are now owned by the players themselves, with more than 450 groups worldwide. The rules are mostly the same: One jammer from each team tries to pass through the blockers and pivots to lap them around the track and break through again for points. The more players each jammer passes, the more points she earns.
Getting my derby legs
I found the Port City Roller Girls, a Stockton derby club, online in January. They opened their practice to me and even lent me skates and protective gear. Too bad they couldn't give me their skills, too.
Stockton's roller girls have been smashing into one another and their opponents since 2006.
They train twice a week in the same chilly warehouse where I spent two hours of my Thursday night.
I walked in at 6:07 p.m. to see 20 athletic women tying on black, derby-style roller skates among piles of helmets, knee pads and water bottles. They compared bruises, scars and levels of soreness the way housewives trade recipes.
Tess T. Rossa passed around her iPhone with a photo of her left eye after it was smashed by a skate wheel in their last practice.
"I have about a pound of makeup covering it. It still hurts to touch it," she said.
"Oh my god. Did you cry?" I asked.
"No," she said derisively. "I put ice on it."
Oh. Of course that's how these women with predatory gleams in their eyes would handle an injury with the potential to cause blindness.
And here I was, the unsteady doe hoping not to get eaten alive.
Was it possible to leave without at least a severe bruise? Or was I destined for a side trip to the hospital?
Practice started with warm-up laps: Fifty rounds in 10 minutes. The girls got it done in eight minutes and change.
I made my way around the outside edge of the track in an unsteady gait. The team's referee, known fondly as Coach Roadkill, skated up to check on me.
"You have skated before, right?" he asked. No — not unless you count pretending to glide around my living room after watching ice skaters at the Winter Olympics.
"I came to try this out for a day, and I hope I don't die," I said.
Malice gave me pointers on my form.
"Bend the knees, keep your feet apart. Like you're squatting over a gross toilet," she said. I crouched slightly and took a hesitant step forward.
"When you hear the phrase, 'Tickets up,' tickets are the girls. It means straighten up and stick your chest out," she said. A coach might call that out mid-bout to remind the girls to stabilize their core muscles.
I pushed my shoulders back and held my arms out for balance, pushing each skate outward as I tried to glide forward. Balance escaped me and I went down. My pride stung more than my behind, though.
"Um, how do I get up?" I asked as spit flew out of my mouth around my mouth guard.
"Don't worry, we all spit on each other here," she said. Malice and another skater called Mayhem demonstrated how to dig my toe stop into the floor and steady myself to stand up. Malice pointed out my rookie mistake: I put my hands on the ground for stability.
"Don't do that. Last year, a girl lost a finger that way," she said.
Eeek. That is not an option. I vowed to keep my hands to myself.
We stretched in the middle of the track. Trying to configure my legs with 5-pound skates on made for some interesting contortions. My wheeled heel shot forward and I landed in a split. Ouch.
"Okay. I'm stretched. Let's do this," I said. No one answered.
Keeping up with the rookies
Next, the newbies split up from the veteran skaters for conditioning and drills.
We traded our skates for tennis shoes and lined up in two rows. Girls who knew the ropes chanted out the count as we completed three rounds of squats, a jumping exercise, ab work and the dreaded planks. Then Malice lined up six orange cones in a ladder formation for sprinting and footwork.
She grinned while putting us through our paces.
Derby has done a lot of good in her life.
Malice started with the team eight years ago during a try-out at Hammer Skate in Stockton. As a single mom, she said she stuck around for the camaraderie among skaters.
"Try it once, and you'll keep coming back," she said. "We're a family."
She competed in her first bout just hours after a surgery. It wasn't a good idea, she said, but she was so eager to play.
A bad fall caused a major spinal injury a year ago, but Malice was recently cleared for skating by her doctor. Now she bosses the newbies and keeps us in line.
Malice isn't the only one to suffer injuries.
Godzella remembers a wrist guard slamming into her shoulder and wrenching it. Two girls have broken ankles mid-play. Godzella's been in for a year, and says the butterflies don't leave her stomach until she's on the track.
"It's given me a sense of knowing myself, a sense of womanhood," she said.
Finally, Malice released us for a water break.
"Get those skates on, ladies! Let's go!" she yelled.
You could say the hard work was getting to me. I'm not known for my physical endurance.
I tried a few of the ways to stop that Malice demonstrated.
There was the T-stop, where the skater puts her feet in a "T" shape and drags the back foot as a brake. The plow stop brings the toe of each skate together in a "V."
The only one I managed was the knee slide, where the skater drops down on her knees from a run and skids to a stop. I didn't so much skid as fall on my knees and collapse.
I watched the newbies run through the next drill. Each skater leaned up on her toe stops and sprinted the length of the room. I turned to Malice.
"I don't think I can do that," I said.
"Just try it. Hold onto my arm," she said.
Five steps later, I was done.
Done and done
That was it. I was dizzy, exhausted, and my legs were definitely complaining. There's no way I was ready to do more. I told Malice I had given up for the night.
"That's fine. You did good. Come back out, OK? Really. If you're looking for something like this, this is a great group of women," she said.
I looked around the warehouse, taking in GingerFightis as a rogue booty check sent her flying off the track and into a pile of gym bags. Could I really come back twice a week for the privilege of being pummeled while wearing a neon mouth guard that scraped my gums? The payoff is the chance to be pummeled by strangers on the track instead of new friends.
"We'll see," I told her. Maybe after a few months of training I'd be ready to take on a practice jam, blocking my teammates from gaining ground. Or maybe I'd get a concussion during my first scrimmage, ending my career before it began.
The truth is, I am not cut out for contact sports. Yoga and kickboxing are much more my style. They're quieter, I can go at my own pace, and there are no wheels involved to chop off my fingers.
The women I met who call roller derby their passion are incredible. Strong and determined, these ladies go down fighting and spring back up like it's nothing.
If I can't have their derby skills, maybe I can channel just a little of their spirit.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.